Venturing: Rich folks

Posted Wednesday, February 22, 2012 in Politics

Venturing: Rich folks

by David D. Platt

If ever there were evidence that the Republican Party has become decadent, consider its putative front-runner, Mitt Romney.

His primary claim to fame, he wants us all to know, is that he made a lot of money. Somehow, that’s supposed to qualify him to lead the United States, a country that prides itself for being a beacon of equal opportunity, etc. etc. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think the much-quoted Founding Fathers had plutocrats in mind when they created the office of president. Sure, some of the FFs were rich themselves – Benjamin Franklin, George Washington and some other substantial types come to mind – but they didn’t envision electing a grasping capitalist with no other qualifications to the nation’s highest office.

If they’d set things up differently, favoring extremely wealthy individuals for political office, our history would be populated by presidents named Rockefeller, Morgan or Vanderbilt. It isn’t, largely because American voters have been inherently suspicious of rich candidates, particularly if they haven’t done anything besides make money.

Returning to Romney, who did serve for a time as governor of Massachusetts: you’d think he’d tout that experience in his campaign resume, but he doesn’t – in fact, as the Republican primaries and caucuses have unfolded across the country this winter, Romney has run away from that particular piece of political experience as fast and far as he can. A moderate Republican governor who worked with a liberal Democratic Legislature? Not so, says Mitt – he was a conservative the whole time. A governor who pushed through a pioneering piece of health-insurance legislation that was so admired by people outside Massachusetts that the Obama administration modeled its own health-care initiative on it? Sorry, don’t remember that. Next question?

Now we have Romney the Bain Capital tycoon who bought distressed businesses and turned them around by stripping and selling them, firing longtime employees and leaving the government to pick up the pension obligations. Compassionate governor of Massachusetts? Never happened. Now let me tell you about my experience as a businessman …

Maine has some experience with well-heeled candidates. For what seemed like decades we had Bob Monks, the Cape Elizabeth Republican who both married and inherited a reasonably tall stack of dollars and who ran for governor and senator and perhaps other offices. He never won, perhaps because the press could never figure out how to describe him: Cape Elizabeth industrialist? Southern Maine investor? Capitalist? Nothing sounded right and even though Monks came across as a nice guy, he never got elected. Maine voters weren’t interested in someone whose only claim to fame was his money. (More recently, Monks has found a niche in the corporate-responsibility business, commenting from time to time on shareholder rights from a perch in London.)

We had Sherry Huber, a very nice Republican with a family fortune, legislative experience and excellent environmental credentials. She ran for governor when I was editor of the old Maine Times and there was considerable pressure to endorse her in the primary. I refused, on grounds that self-financed candidates (as she was at that point) needed to earn a newspaper endorsement by going out and convincing some other people to support them first. I prevailed, but not before I’d muttered, in the presence of my rich publisher, that I thought wealthy people shouldn’t be in politics at all, but instead should be watched by the FBI. It may have been the beginning of the end for me, but I know I was right.

We had Angus King, a one-time Democrat who made a pile of money in the energy-conservation business and then used some of it to run for governor. He got elected, did a good job and got re-elected, becoming the exception that proves my no-rich-guys-need-apply rule.

 I began by describing Romney as the “putative” Republican front-runner, which he is. His major competition (this week at least) is Rick Santorum, not a rich guy but a man driven by his far-right, socially conservative convictions. And there, starkly, is what prompted me to assert that the Republican Party has become decadent. They’re offering us a choice between one candidate whose major credential (by his own description) is the size of his bank account and another whose views make him unacceptable to the majority of Americans. If you still don’t believe we’re looking at a political party with serious dry rot in its keel, I can’t help you.

David D. Platt was editor of the old Maine Times.

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